I’d never experienced a foot washing service until I attended Moody Bible Institute. Every year on Maundy Thursday, after a brief chapel homily, students who felt prompted could go down front where a line of campus leaders and professors were ready to wash their feet.
I never went. Partly because I was still too uncomfortable with a tradition not my own, mostly because I struggled with feeling unworthy to take part in the story. I agreed too much with Peter – it was unthinkable that Jesus should serve me. I was much more comfortable relating to Him as supreme commander than looking Him in the face as a stripped-down, foot-washing servant.
That discomfort with Jesus’ servant example is one many Western Christians share. We’d much rather prefer to reflect the nature of His Lordly, glorious return than His humble foot washing Incarnation. Christians too easily speak the language of [political, cultural, ecclesiastical, family] power and war. One mega-church pastor, quoting from Revelation 19, criticizes Christian appeals for pacifism by appealing to when Jesus “will come again not in humility but rather in glory… Simply, on his first trip to the earth Jesus took a beating to atone for sin; on his next trip he will hand them out to unrepentant sinners instead.”
Consciously or unconsciously we’ve neglected Jesus’ call that we will be blessed if we follow His servant-example. In fact, that example is the only one we’re called to conform to. In his book Cross-Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer writes, “The lordly model is not for his followers. Jesus alone rightly claims the title ‘Lord’ and shares it with no one. We are not to follow him in his lordly role but in his servant role.”
Human nature falls prey to the failure Jesus criticized the Pharisees for – delighting to lord over others any power or position in our grasp. It’s precisely because we expect God to wield His power in the flashy, oppressive way of humans that the image of Incarnate God bent over to serve so rattles us. It’s because we prefer to gain power for our benefit that we struggle with the call to follow him into servanthood.
I read Elmer’s book three months ago and it’s still rattling around in my brain. He’s writing in the context of working cross-culturally but the principles of servanthood are applicable wherever Christ-followers are. This is a God-thing, Elmer insists:
When God chose to connect with humans, he did so as a servant. It was a most unlikely way to connect, for servants are usually invisible… Why would Jesus choose to come as a servant? All the images of servant seem so counter-human.
I can think of only one reason Jesus came as a servant: it is in the very nature of God to serve.
This image of God’s nature oriented towards servanthood is one that I still can’t wrap my mind around. The whole book has challenged the way I think and operate around others.
Over the next several weeks, I’d like to take his book chapter by chapter and look at the principles of servanthood he lays out. Please, please join in the discussion. Perhaps together we might grow in our ability to be servants. Which, if Elmer’s right, means growing in our likeness of God the Servant.
Do you agree with Elmer that to serve is in God’s nature? What’s your gut reaction to being called not to follow Jesus in His Lordship, but in His Servantship?